When hard work and passion collide with opportunity

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/news/wimbledon-marcus-willis-main-draw-2016

At #775 in the ATP rankings, Marcus Willis was an unlikely qualifier into this year's Wimbledon main draw field.  If not for a nudge, some good old fashioned hard work, and a love for the game we may not have been able to witness his rise through the qualifying tournament and into the main draw of 2016's third Grand Slam event.  I will let you read the story above for yourself, but there are a few take-aways that all players can glean from Willis' story.

Hard-work is a pre-requisite 

There are no guarantees that if you work hard you will achieve your goals.  This is one of the most challenging aspects of sport; the unknown.  However, hard work is the pre-requisite to the "opportunity" for good things to happen.  Willis grinded it out in various European leagues leading up to June, which ultimately allowed him to get the last spot in the PRE-QUALIFYING. From there he advanced into the Qualifying tournament, and subsequently was the last entry into the Main Draw.  When the pre-requisite of hard-work is met and the opportunity arises, good things can happen.  

Prepare as though the opportunity is coming

The sports world is full of great examples of athletes who take full advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself.  Tom Brady comes to mind immediately.  His desire drove him to prepare each day as it was going to be the first day he could start proving everyone wrong. When the opportunity came he was physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to pounce.  We shall see if Willis can make a splash at this year's Wimbledon, but even if he doesn't, the fact that he was coaching at a country club for most of the year and was able to get into the main draw is inspiring.  Willis was preparing himself for this stage months ago, when the reality of getting to this point was a far-fetched dream.  But here he is, getting ready to take advantage of the next opportunity.       

Surround yourself with positive and honest people

At some point you will doubt yourself and your path, and when this time comes look to your inner circle for inner strength.  Sometimes players need to borrow someone else's positive energy, or maybe get a kick in the rear to get across the void.  Latch onto people who can inspire you, motivate you, challenge you.  Surround yourself with family/friends/players/coaches who have high goals like you do and will be honest and direct when needed.  One of Willis' friends challenged his intentions to give up his playing career and coach tennis in the US, telling him he was "an idiot and should keep going."  The nudge was received.  

Accept that the journey will bend at times

There is no straight shot to achievement. Look at a road map; do you think the engineers planned it that way? No, but they had an end result in mind and it was just a matter of solving the variety of obstacles they faced along the way. Approach your own journey in a similar way. Develop a plan and have an end result in mind, but be ready to adapt, to grind it out, to problem-solve regardless of the challenge.  If you accept the fact that your journey will bend at times, you will be better prepared for when it actually does.  

 

"Peaking Mentally" starts now

There are about three weeks left before the USTA National Clay Court Championships kick off the summer grind.  As I work with players getting ready to peak at the summer nationals, there are common themes that should be addressed so that players can cash in on their hard work.

By now, the training foundation has been completed.  From building the physical toughness and endurance, to cleaning up the technical changes, players must now transition into a different mode for the weeks leading up to the big events.  

1. Sharpen the blade:  

  • Focus on your weapons and what you do well.  Win with your strengths each day of practice to build confidence.
  • Shift your focus to tactics over technique.  Ask questions that matter during competitive point play.  What adjustments can I make?  What does my opponent do well/not well? How can I play to my strengths?       

2. Approach each day with purpose:

  • Create "mini-match goals" to stay engaged during competition.  Create measurable goals that relate to your game style. For instance, "Win 10 points at the net," or "Serve out wide on every first serve to the deuce box." 
  • Never leave the court frustrated or mad; finish with something positive each day. If you had a rough training day then end it with a drill that you love. I like to have players end practices with finishing drills like floater volleys, overheads, or mid-court balls; they work on being aggressive, which can alleviate the frustration. 

3. Execute your mental routines:

  • Use practice matches and smaller tournaments to work on your on-court presence. How do you want to look and act when you are competing at the larger tournaments? Practice being the player you want to be when the pressure arrives.  
  • Use your self-talk in a motivational way.  Remind yourself of the long road you have taken to get to this point and the challenges you have overcome.  

4. Use the excitement and nerves as motivation

  • As the excitement and pressure builds closer to the tournaments, keep yourself accountable for having a good attitude and work on being a positive player each day. The nerves are a good sign; you care, and you are emotionally engaged.  Now direct this nervous energy into a positive manner. 
  • Remember, the tournaments are the fun part!  They give you an opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone and test yourself in new ways.  

Look for the ASP Team in Florida during the Clay Court Nationals events.  If you are interested in working on your mental skills, reach out to us today to schedule training sessions.  Best of luck this summer!  

 

Be a better player on your bad days, when you aren't "in the zone"

Throughout my travels to the top junior and professional tennis events I have seen some pretty crazy things that players have to deal with, so much so that I could write a book about it.  For example, I once saw a player who was behind 0-3 in the first set launch all three balls into a pond behind the court, and then proceed to walk slowly to the tournament desk to get a new can of balls.  His opponent just stood there in disbelief, not sure what to do or say.  One of my favorite examples is about a player who lost the first set and took a bathroom break.  A few minutes later the player returned to the court.  There was only one problem; his identical twin brother (the better player of the two) came back and began playing in his place until one of the spectators pointed it out to an official.  I could easily take a different turn with the rest of this article and discuss the character component to competitive sport, but you know what, players have to learn to deal with the adversity and figure out a way to keep charging ahead.  Is it right for opponents to do these things? No, but the reality of being a competitive tennis player is that you are going to be exposed to a wide array of different cultures, conditions, and challenges, and to be successful you must be resilient.  Resiliency is no different than any other skill; it has to be strengthened through practice. 

Develop a Tolerance to Adversity

To become more resilient, players must build a tolerance to adversity, which is achieved by attacking the rough days with a different mindset and attitude.  Instead of trying to get into the "zone" each day, work on building thicker armor that cannot be penetrated by pebbles (the petty events that happen during competition).  I disagree with the notion that mental skills development is for the purpose of getting an athlete into the "zone".  Instead, I would rather help a player develop a deeper well for handling adversity. The "zone" is such a rare occurrence, and in my experience, not within an athlete's control.  The days when everything you do seems to work and is effortless are few and far between.  Instead, competition and training is full of random challenges and adverse moments.  I have asked pros and grand slam champions the question; How many matches in your career were you "in the zone"? Their answers were all very similar; a very small percentage.  One former world #1 said he would guess only about 20 matches fell into this category; he was on the tour for over a decade and played almost 800 matches in his career.  

Let's say, for example, that out of 10 practices a player will have 5 good days, 3 average days, and 2 bad days.  How much would he/she improve by bringing the good days up to great days?  How much would he/she improve by bringing the bad days up to average days?  Is it easier to get your performances from good to great, or from bad to average?  In my experience, players who improve on their bad days (process-oriented) make bigger jumps than those who want to make their good days even better (perfectionism).  Forget the zone, bring your bottom end up.  You will improve much more if your mental performances are consistent from the good days to the bad days.  Instead of striving for the highest level of physical performance every practice or every match, work on day-to-day mental consistency, which means you have a high level of mental engagement regardless of how well you are playing. Once you can accomplish mental consistency, then you can turn your attention to the top 1% of performance.   

Change Your Perception of the Bad Days; See Opportunity

Players who are exposed to struggle and adversity have a great opportunity to fill in their holes, but only if they choose to see it this way.  Very few players who I have worked with like the days when things are difficult, but eventually they learn to roll with it and focus on what really matters.  When you begin to look at adversity and bad days through a different lens, you begin seeking out challenge as a means of staying motivated and goal-focused.  The easy days offer few challenges, and as a result, few opportunities to build your tolerance for adversity. Which matches are you the most proud? The ones where you won easily, or the ones where you had to dig deep?  Which matches did you learn the most from or gain the most confidence?  Redirect your bad days and challenges into opportunities. 

Focus on the controllables to level out performance

A player's mental engagement will often correlate with his/her physical play.  Play well and you will see a positive and engaged player; play poorly and you will see bad body language and inconsistent engagement.  While it would be great to be mentally engaged AND play well, you only need one of the two to be present to put yourself in a position to win.  If you go 0 for 2 then you are in trouble.  If you have ever played poorly but managed to win, then you know what it is like to grind out the win mentally.  It won't be pretty and you will have to dig deep, but at least if your mind is focused on the controllables (effort, attitude, mindset, making adjustments, etc.) you will be in every match you play.  If your mental engagement goes hand in hand with your physical performance then you can expect a lot of ups and downs, which can be very frustrating.  Get off the roller-coaster ride and become a consistent competitor; grind it out mentally on the bad days.

Develop your tolerance to adversity by taking challenges head on with a different attitude. Practice and competition represents opportunities to strengthen your armor; the thicker it is the more you can handle and the less your opponent can get through.   

Doing the work in between points

Tennis is full of "down time", or moments when you are not actually playing the point and hitting the ball.  It is during these moments that players tend to lose focus and check out mentally.  One of the most common issues players want help with is having consistent performance during matches.  Most players engage DURING the point but bring a different level of focus IN-BETWEEN points.  So how can you level out your mental performance and maintain high levels of play? Do the work in between points.  For every minute of actual physical performance you will spend about 4-5 minutes having to mentally perform.  This time is often unstructured and scattered, thus explaining the up and down play.  Most players have certain routines or rituals to help them reset and refocus, but it is more than just going to the towel and looking at the strings.  Here are a few ways to work more efficiently between points and level out your performance:

Take your time to get ready.  Every player is different in terms of how much time they like to use in between points.  Andy Roddick was a notoriously fast-paced player, whereas Rafael Nadal would consistently get time violations.  Most players will take more time after longer points or before a big moment in the match (i.e., facing break point).  A general rule of thumb: take more time when you are 1) frustrated, 2) not playing well, 3) behind in the score, 4) after long points, and 5) before the important points.  Play at your normal pace of play when things are going well or the opponent is struggling.      

Have a strong walk.  Make your opponent feel your court presence in between points by "walking strong".  Walk with a purpose; head up, shoulders back, racket in a strong position. Jog to the chair on changeovers and back to the court when it is time to play again; make them see that you are in control regardless of the score.  What do you want your opponent to see when he/she looks at you from across the net?   

Match or exceed their intensity.  When you get behind the worst thing you can do with your time is be flat or negative, especially when the opponent is bouncing around and looking strong.  At a minimum you have to match your opponent's intensity; if they are bouncing between points then you do the same.  When you get ahead, maintaining your focus is much easier when you are continuing to be positive after good points and showing positive body language.  Match their intensity when behind, exceed their intensity when ahead. 

Develop your on-court presence and start to do the mental work in between points. In doing so, you will find your inconsistent play will begin to level out.  Train hard.  Dream big.

 

Using Stats to Highlight the Most "Mentally Fit" Players

The ATP website has a great resource called the "ATP Performance Zone", where various stats are presented from the game's greatest players. Included are broad stats like career winning percentage, and more specific records such as winning percentage after losing the first set. After playing around with some of the options, it is really amazing how the top players are separated from everyone else.  For instance, take the stat winning percentage "After Losing First Set". What would you guess the top players' winning percentage is after losing the first set? You may be surprised to learn it is below 50%, with Rod Laver owning the best at 49%. For current ATP players, Nadal is at the top of the list with 43%, followed by Djokovic at 41%. What about other top 10 players? Berdych (26%), Ferrer (31%), Raonic (28%), Murray (40%), Federer (40%), Wawrinka (33%), Nishikori (35%), and Tsonga (34%).  Now look at other players in the top 30:

15th ranked player, Gael Monfils (26%)

20th ranked player, Benoit Paire (23%)

25th ranked player, Phillip Kohlschreiber (18%)

30th ranked player, Ivo Karlovic (23%)  

There is a clear distinction between the top 10 and everyone else in this statistical category. Not surprising, the players who have dominated the game for the past decade (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, & Murray) are all at or above the 40% mark. 

Let's take a look at another stat category, winning percentage for the "Deciding Set".  Looking at the top 10 again: Djokovic (74%), Federer (64%), Murray (69%), Nadal (69%), Ferrer (65%), Nishikori (78%), Tsonga (63%), Wawrinka (58%), Raonic (61%), and Berdych (57%). Now look at other players in the top 30:

15th ranked player, Gael Monfils (57%)

20th ranked player, Benoit Paire (54%)

25th ranked player, Phillip Kohlschreiber (54%)

30th ranked player, Ivo Karlovic (51%)  

Take what you will from these numbers, but consider the reasons why the top players are leading these lists.  Simply put, the top players keep fighting when others give up; the top players keep believing in themselves when others begin to doubt; the top players raise their level when the match is on the line whereas other players fade down the stretch.  It all boils down to mental toughness.  The top players are the most mentally fit and they use this mental strength to separate themselves from everyone else.  

So how can you use this data to improve your game?  Think about your own playing history. How well do you do after losing the first set?  How well do you do in the deciding third set? Consider the reasons why you may struggle in one or both of these areas.  Do you fade in the third set due to your fitness level?  Do you get negative or stop believing when you lose the first set?  Do your nerves interfere with your performance during the big moments in the match?  These are all questions to consider when trying to figure out where you can improve your game.  Reflection leads to awareness; awareness leads to problem solving; problem solving leads to action; action leads to improvement.  

Pressure is Earned

Finishing under pressure.  It is what separates good players from great players. Unlike other sports, tennis players have to win the last point, they have to finish. If a basketball team is up by 20 points with a minute to play, they do not need to keep hustling on defense or keep executing on offense (although the coaching staff would certainly want them to do both). The player in the lead is playing with all the pressure, while the player who is behind is playing pressure-free. Have you ever noticed how your opponent plays the best point of the match when behind set/match point?  As Agassi pointed out in his book, there is an unstoppable force that exists when nearing the end of the match; either a force that is pulling you closer to the finish line, or the force that keeps you from it.  When the force pulls you closer everything is going well, you can do no wrong.  But when the force is against you it feels like nothing you do will get you closer, you can do nothing right.  

So how do the best players in the world finish?  In the 1988 US Open finals, Mats Wilander said he served and volleyed on match point because his hands were shaking so much from the nerves; he knew he would tighten up even more if he played from the baseline.  Todd Martin worked on getting his thoughts more structured and present-focused in the months after his loss to Mal Washington at Wimbledon (Martin held a 5-1 lead in the 5th set before losing 10-8; he had two chances to serve it out). Martin began seeing himself play against Richard Krajicek in the finals, and ultimately he lost his focus and choked. To answer the question above...the pros work on it. They get nervous just like you do, they get tight in big moments just like you do. But they get to work on developing the skills to overcome the nerves and this is what separates them from their peers. They find effective ways to manage the nerves and the pressure, and quite frankly, they learn to handle it better than everyone else. As famed tennis coach Chuck Kriese always says, "Pressure is a privilege." To be in a position where you feel pressure means you have done something well to get to that point. You are in a position to win. Finding your own answer requires 1) awareness of which situations bring about the most pressure, 2) trying different strategies to better deal with this pressure, and 3) being in a position to win and face the pressure. 

Approach the end of matches with a new mindset and arm yourself with new ways to perform under pressure. Your opponent will usually play better when behind, so it will take you raising/maintaining your level to finish. Here are a few ideas to implement in your own game: 1) keep your intensity higher than your opponent's with positive reactions and a strong walk, 2) focus on how you like to play and win with your strengths, 3) do the work in between points by executing your routines and relaxation skills, 4) reframe how you look at pressure and change the dialogue in your head (from "I am so tight", to "I've earned this pressure") and 5) fully commit to each shot (hesitation or second-guessing only increases the nerves). Some players never learn what pressure is all about because they are rarely in a position to win. Struggling to finish matches is actually a great sign, as it means you have put yourself in a position to win. But to go from good to great you will have to eventually find what works for you when faced with these situations. Earn the pressure and persevere.   

Finding the Small Wins in a Loss

I have been working hard for a long time. I said enough about the nerves. I was nervous during the matches last year. Working hard every day slows that down... The victories help. Still not 100% perfect, but it is much, much better.
— Rafa Nadal after winning Monte-Carlo

Nadal's win in Monte-Carlo represents his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title since 2014, and more importantly, represents a return to championship form that he has been lacking over the past 2 years.  Injuries, age, and a surging Novak Djokovic have not helped Nadal's road back to the top, but here he is once again holding the trophy in Monte-Carlo and marching his way to Paris.  It took a champion's mindset and approach to fight through the struggle and the setbacks, and Nadal's experience is full of learning opportunities for all players.

One of the most common questions I get from players is "I am working hard, but why aren't the results coming?" These are players who are returning from injury, making changes to their games, or who simply have not broken through the way they thought they would by that point in their careers. Regardless of the situation, the message is pretty much the same; each time you step onto the court is an opportunity to go out and get a step closer to where you want to be. Find the small wins in the losses as a way of maintaining and building your confidence; in doing so, your mindset will become more engaged in personal progress and finding solutions. 

If you go back through Nadal's press conferences over the past year, you will hear him working through this process of finding small wins.  In Buenos Aires and Rio, Nadal lost two three set matches, and while he was not happy with the outcomes he was pleased that he kept competing through his struggles. This year at Indian Wells, Nadal pointed out that even though he is losing to Djokovic, the fact that he is going deeper into tournaments to play against him is a big step forward.  Further, he noted that he was gaining more confidence in his forehand, and he was more competitive against Djokovic than in prior meetings. Not surprisingly, Nadal stated his forehand and level of competitiveness were the main reasons for his success in Monte-Carlo. 

Maintaining confidence is an active process, especially when going through difficult times. If you choose to focus on the negatives, you will keep finding the negatives at every step along the way. By finding the small wins in the losses, you train your mind to sift through the negatives and locate what you can build upon and what you can control.   

"There's a fine line between disaster and success..." ~Lee Westwood

Commitment to the shot, or lack thereof, ultimately cost Jordan Spieth a second consecutive Master's championship.  Standing over his tee shot on the infamous hole #12, things sped up for Spieth, who admitted he started rushing through his routines and did not fully commit to the shot in front of him.  After 63 holes, Spieth had few lapses in his performance, and when he did have a misstep he battled back each time.  But bogey, bogey put him on #12 on the final day with a one shot lead, after previously holding a 5 shot lead with 9 to play.  Pressure. History. Overthinking. In 2014, Spieth had a similar outcome on hole #12; he found the water hazard then too, which cost him the championship as well.  His personal history with the hole created doubt in his mind, which in turn led to carding an unprecedented 7 on a par 3.     

Committing to the shot is one of the most important aspects of playing tennis at a high level. Approaching the ball with a clear idea of what to do, followed by fully committing to the decision, leads to better execution and confidence in one's abilities. I venture a guess that if Spieth had committed to the shot in his mind he may still have put the ball in the water; however, the key difference is what would have gone through his mind afterward.  If he had committed to the shot and missed he could still move forward knowing that he made the right decision, but just didn't execute (he at least got one of the two right).  Instead, he didn't execute BECAUSE he didn't commit to the shot.  When you hear a player say "I got tight", this is what they are experiencing; overthinking that leads to doubt, which leads to poor decision making, which leads to poor execution.  As one of the commentators stated, "At this point in the tournament, poor play is usually a result of poor decision making."  In Spieth's situation, it led to him rushing through his routines and approaching the ball before he was ready to play.  

I would imagine that the sleepless nights ahead of Spieth are not because he missed out on an opportunity to win back-to-back Master's, but rather that he didn't commit to his game in the most challenging spot on the golf course.  If he had, and even if he still came up short, I bet he would sleep much easier.  

Success is "Intoxicating"

It’s so hard not to get intoxicated with fame.
— Jay Wright, Villanova men's basketball coach

Villanova, who is in the 2016 Final Four for the second time in Wright's career, is poised to win a national championship this coming weekend.  The article is a great example of the ups and downs that coaches, athletes, and teams face in sport, and how success can alter one's mindset and change a winning approach.  Wright's first Final Four appearance was in 2009, which was immediately followed by a few disappointing seasons, full of early tournament losses.  It was during the 2011 off-season that Wright confided in his assistant coach that he did not handle his program's success very well, and that success ultimately changed his approach to recruiting.  Rather than replicate the best-fit recruiting philosophy that led to the 2009 run, Wright made decisions based on best talent, which did not pan out to more wins.    

Success, using Wright's term, can be "intoxicating."  Winning can bring a lot of positive reactions, like increased confidence in one's abilities and increased motivation to continue succeeding.  But winning can also lead to a shift in an athlete's mindset, where the focus is on the success itself and what it brings (social acceptance, financial gain, etc.), rather than the process that went into its development.  The emotional defense mechanisms kick in and there is a temptation to change, to listen to the "noise", to "protect" what you just earned.  These reactions are all normal, but that is where the distinction needs to be; they are only reactions, not habits.  It is important to let success sink in and pull the positives from the experience, but keep your training and thinking habits close and take the time to reflect on what got you there. It's time to set new performance and outcome goals and get back to work.

The opportunity hiding behind adversity

Three and a half hours, 7 match points saved, injury timeouts for cramping, 95 degree weather, and a great opportunity. This was the setting in the semi-finals of a 14-and-Under Super National event. Down 6-1, 5-2, 40-15 after only 35 minutes, my player, who I will call "K" was struggling mightily. After a great win in the Quarters, in which he played very well, his game suddenly abandoned him in the Semis. But resiliency kicked in and K saved four match points in the 5-2 game. His opponent tightened up and cracked open the door for a comeback. Over the next three hours, K would go on to save three more match points, win the second set in a tiebreaker, go up in the third set before getting tight himself, deal with a long injury timeout from his opponent for cramping, and ultimately drop the deciding set 6-4. His opponent would spend part of the evening in the hospital getting IVs, and would amazingly show up the next day and take the title. K, even in the loss, would be left with something equally great; recognizing the opportunity hiding behind adversity.    

Later that evening I asked K what was going through his head during that 5-2 game, facing two match points. His response; "At first I was just embarrassed at how fast I was losing, so I just tried to hang on as long as I could to make it look better. Usually when I get that far behind I am not able to get back into it, but I kept telling myself I could do it this time. At 3-5, I was still way behind, but it was at that point when I started believing that I really could come back. So I just thought of it as a challenge and I kept pumping myself up after each point. I lost but I felt like I did something I had never done before." It was in that moment that K saw the opportunity, which had been disguised by the challenge and adversity he was facing. The opportunity was to overcome a challenge, to prove to himself that he could come back, to fully commit to the competition in front of him. If K had simply rolled over or quit competing at 5-2, he would have never experienced the emotional and physical roller coaster ride. Further, he would have missed an opportunity to learn something about himself and become a more resilient and confident player in the process. 

How do YOU approach adversity and challenge? How do you view situations like playing the #1 seed first round, or having to play in windy conditions, or having inconsistent play during matches? If you are willing to redefine what "challenge" means to you, then adversity can represent an opportunity to learn about yourself, to experience new things, to persevere, to build confidence, to develop new skills.  Start thinking about what adverse moments impact you the most. Is it playing on certain surfaces or in certain conditions? Is it playing against grinders or counter-punchers? Is it dealing with weather delays or injury timeouts?  Identify what challenges you the most and then come up with solutions to more effectively deal with those situations.  Shift your mindset, focus on a positive approach, and then act on it.   

It's easy when it's easy. It's hard when it's hard, but oh so gratifying.

Staying positive and focused is easy when playing well and things are working. The true test does not come during these times, but rather when adversity strikes and the game challenges you physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Adversity is an opportunity to grow, to think differently, to stretch yourself beyond the limits you have set.  By re-framing these periods of time when luck seems to be on the other side of the net, players are able to stay engaged in the moment and keep their attention focused on something they can control.  So next time you are faced with a bad call, or a string of mistakes, or a lengthy rain delay when leading, talk to yourself about the opportunity in front of you.  

Champions remember the moments in their careers that were the most challenging, and through these challenges they find career-defining motivation.  A great example is Kobe Bryant, who explained how losing the NBA finals to the Boston Celtics set him on a new path: “Losing in ’08 changed how I approached the game, changed how I approached leadership, helped bring out the best version of myself.”  The Lakers would go on to win titles in 2009 and 2010.  When asked which title was the most gratifying, Bryant highlighted the 2010 series, also against Boston, that went the distance and was full of physical and mental challenges: “Going up against three sure Hall of Famers, being down in the series 3-2, having lost to them in 2008.  Understanding the history of the rivalry and all that goes on there. Having a broken finger and playing with a cast. All those things make that championship more special than the rest.” 

Adversity is an opportunity. How will you redefine the adversity in your life?